100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3

2 October 2011


The third and final day of the 100YSS symposium wound up exactly at noon, but I had incorrectly remembered the starting time as 9:00 am whereas it began in fact at 8:00 am, so I was late for the first panel discussion among the track chairs and missed most of it. The second panel, from 9:00 am to 10:30 am was about organizational considerations, sounded deadly dull but was in fact quite interesting. The third panel from 10:30 am to noon, which comprised the celebrities, was less interesting.

During the second panel there was a lively debate and some disagreement about the proper organizational framework for a 100 year starship project. The initial remarks by Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems received whoops of approval, and throughout the proceedings Mr. Wong repeatedly threw cold water on the contributions of the others. Mr. Wong was very much the hard-headed banker, exemplifying the line from Stendhal that, “Pour être bon philosopher il faut être sec, clair, sans illusion. Un banquier, qui a fait fortune, a une partie du caractère requis pour faire des découvertes en philosophie, c’est-à-dire pour voir clair dans ce qui est.” Mr. Wong urged the participants to, “Talk to investment bankers; they deal with trillions of dollars every day.”

Part of the apparent disagreement (call it a “disconnect” if you like) was really the members of the panel talking at cross-purposes to one another. There was no clarification as to whether the goal was to discuss the creation of a particular organization or institution that would last a hundred years and eventually be instrumental in the building of a starship, or whether what they were ultimately talking about was an overall change in the direction of contemporary civilization that would, in the fullness of time, result in humanity building a starship. These are very different visions and goals.

The opening remarks by James Schalkwyk of the University of Cape Town was a very interesting historical sketch of institutions that have lasted over extended periods of time (more than a hundred years), citing examples as diverse as the Roman Catholic Church and the General Electric corporation. Throughout the proceedings of the symposium the Catholic Church and religion more generally were cited as paradigmatic long-term institutions toward which any starship project should look for inspiration. But in the many examples cited throughout the symposium I never heard anyone mention the Hanseatic League, which seems to me an altogether better historical parallel than the other examples reviewed. The Hanseatic League had a loose but coherent structure, lasted for hundreds of years, left a permanent imprint on the culture of northern Europe, and was profit- and market-driven.

Throughout the symposium and during the second panel, it was both stated and implied on several occasions that humanity needs to put its own house in order and fix its problems before it sets out for the stars. Tan Huei Ming of the National University of Singapore implied this by saying that if we failed to do so, we would only take our human, all-too-human pollution and political problems out amongst the stars. In a subtle and unstated way this tied in to the utopian character of many of the presentations, as the speakers struggled to define the kind of society that could possibly survive a long-term, long-distance interstellar flight. Obviously, if we are going to wait to undertake interstellar journeys until we have our house in order on earth, these journeys will never happen. Humanity is not about to suddenly turn a corner and mutually participate in some great historical enterprise. Conflict is not going to come to an end. And in so far as competition is a form of conflict, conflict may well be the spur that does eventually put human beings in space for the long term.

Overweening ambition and conflict are virtues when it comes to undertaking grandly visionary projects — that is to say, projects like building a starship when the technology is not yet available to do this. During the European Middle Ages, civic pride together with eschatological hope drove ambitions for worldly achievement.

As I have noted, the building of cathedrals has been mentioned many times at 100YSS as an analogy for an multi-generational project. We would do well to recall that, in the building of these cathedrals, city-states (in fact, though not in name) competed with each other to erect the grandest edifice that would not only edify the local citizenry but which would also swell their hearts with pride to see the works of which they were capable and how this effort outshone that of their neighbors.

Another theme that emerged at least twice (yesterday during the presentations and today during the second panel) was the idea that one influence that may be behind contemporary apathy in relation to space exploration is that people mostly cannot see the stars. I hadn’t before thought of this as an unintended consequence of urbanization, but it certainly can be construed in this way. With the greater part of the species concentrated in cities with pervasive electrification and therefore pervasive lighting, the spectacular display of the heavens simply doesn’t feature in most people’s lives. This changes the human relationship to the stars. Now a rare vision of the heavens is associated with wilderness rather than civilization, because the lights of civilization blot out the stars, and it is only in a wilderness that we see the stars as our ancestors saw them.

While I was listening to the discussion of the organizational second panel I came to realize the potential value that the creation of a concrete and focused particular institution devoted to interstellar travel could have, though the approach I would intuitively favor (of the two implicitly contrasted) is that of guiding a change in contemporary civilization toward a spacefaring society. By adopting an extremely ambitious plan such as building a starship at the earlist possible time, however, certain advantages appear:

1) intermediate goals short of the final goal become routine,
2) intermediate goals short of the final goal become part of the ordinary business of life,
3) the sting is taken out of failures to achieve intermediate goals short of the final goal, because it is understood that continued attempts will be made until the intermediate goal is accomplished, and
4) A distant goal is like an ideal that remains out of human reach even as it seems tantalizingly close to our grasp, and therefore remains as a perpetual motivation.

In the meantime, humanity would build a spacefaring civilization on the way to attaining intermediate goals, and this spacefaring civilization is what would ultimately make the building of a starship practicable. Once in orbit with a sufficient workforce, building large-scale projects could proceed much more rapidly than many people realize. The slow and incremental part is the creation of an industrial infrastructure off the surface of the earth — that is to say, the industrialization of space. It would be difficult to rally public support for the industrialization of space — indeed, the very sound of it would be off-putting — but it might be realistic to rally public support behind something as visionary as a journey to the stars.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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